By Stephanie Fleischmann; Directed by Debbie Saivetz
Produced by New Georges
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.4.18
The Flea, 20 Thomas Street
by Ran Xia on 2.25.18
Susanna Stahlmann and Victoria Finney in Sound House. Photo by Photographer Marina McLure.
BOTTOM LINE: This close look at Daphne Oram's life is a multidimensional voyage through sound that sheds light on the invisibility of women.
Sound House is one of those plays that is at the same time utterly cerebral and incredibly romantic. Playwright Stephanie Fleischmann has chosen a unique lens through which to examine the fascinating life of Daphne Oram (Victoria Finney), as well as her sound wizardry. It takes an artist to dream, and a scientist to execute the fantasy. Oram was indeed both.
When Oram was 9 years old, she had a vision. Young Daphne dreamt of turning shapes into sound. She turned out to be a prodigy in sound engineering, worked her way up at the BBC, and eventually realized her dream: her invention, the Oramic machine, can translate visual into audio, turning drawings of frequencies into a wide range of sound.
But Sound House isn’t simply a biographical play depicting Oram’s journey through success and obscurity. With a spirit of experimentation as daring as Oram herself, the production introduces original characters and a fictional plot line that parallels, but also takes apart, Oram’s space/time continuum. The two fictional characters are Constance Sneed (Susanna Stahlman), a young woman living in Harlem (New York) who’s searching for her mother from Haarlem (the Netherlands), and Horace Ohm (James Himelsbach), an engineer who worked for Oram at Tower Folly (where she set up her studio).
Ultimately, the play seems to be about invisible women. Constance describes, in heartbreaking details, her experience of being unseen, to the point where she actively pursues a spell for invisibility. Her interaction with her downstairs neighbor Mrs. Goldblum also reveals a frequently invisible population—the lonely elders who quietly wither away in their apartments. This is echoed in Oram’s fate: a woman who clearly knew how to make noise fades into obscurity, her contributions forgotten and her presence ignored. Yet Constance desires to make an impact in the world, as well as to find her mother, whose brief encounter with Oram bridges the two narratives of this play, bringing the two women together.
While I marveled at the intricate design and the ambitiously complex story, I can’t help but wonder if the play would benefit from more concentration and simplicity. For example, since Ohm is a fictionalized character who never seems to pose an obvious conflict for either of the two female protagonists, his role as a third narrator seems uncertain. It’s also difficult to follow Oram’s story because of the abundance of information and technical jargon. And elements found in the lives of both Constance and Oram aren't really organic, more forced mash-up than serendipitous coincidence.
Sound House, both in terms of its structure and aesthetics, is more avant garde opera than narrative drama, with its thematic repetitions, heightened language, choreographed movements, and perhaps most importantly, its magical sound effects (Tyler Kieffer & Brandon Wolcott), which are at times symphonic, at times disruptive, but always transformative. This is not an easy play to digest, and there’s more underneath its surface at every turn. If you’re willing to submerge yourself into the story and let the characters guide, nay, embrace you, then you’re in for an enlightening, or at least interesting, experience. But it is nevertheless a challenging story that demands your absolute attention and willingness for piecing together puzzles.
(Sound House plays at The Flea, 20 Thomas Street, through March 4, 2018. The running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission. Sound House runs in rep with This is the Color Described by the Time. Performances (of one or the other) are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 3 and 8; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 7. See website for schedule for each show. Tickets are $35 ($55 premium) and are available at newgeorges.org.)
Sound House is by Stephanie Fleischmann. Directed by Debbie Saivetz. Sound Design by Tyler Kieffer & Brandon Wolcott. Set Design by Marsha Ginsberg. Costume Design by Olivera Gajic. Lighting Design by Kate McGee. Movement by Brendan Spieth. Assistant Director is Aaron Ardisson. Additional Music by Christina Campanella. Stage Managers are Jhanae Bonnick and Seth Kieser.
The cast is Victoria Finney, James Himelsbach, and Susanna Stahlmann